Wooden Watch: Villanova's Hart makes his debut

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Buddy Hield, Oklahoma Sooners

Last week, we wrote the official Unofficial Buddy Hield Coronation Case. Two reasons:

1. He is the nation's best player, has produced a disproportionate share of the season's best moments and is leading arguably the nation's best team.

2. Unwinding that argument bit by bit each week for the next two months felt silly. This way, the whole thing is right there, bookmarkable for easy reference. Seriously: What's the point of repeating "Yep, Buddy Hield sure is good at basketball!" when we have a full, definitive case already before the court?

The main risk in shutting down the Wooden race so early was that we had voluntarily become the broadcaster who mentions the no-hitter in progress -- and is obviously to blame when that first line drive crackles through the infield. And we will admit: It was a nervous couple of days.

First, on Saturday, Hield was merely good (23 points, 7-of-16 shooting) in OU's road loss at Kansas State. Then, on Monday, a surging Texas team guarded the Sooners perfectly in the first 20 minutes in Norman, Oklahoma. The Sooners, stagnant, shot just 28 percent from the field in the first half. Hield was 1-for-6 with four turnovers. The Sooners trailed 31-22 at halftime. Gulp.

Oklahoma closed the lead early in the second half, but it never quite got into that full, hey-LSU-you're-not-winning-this-game stride. Texas was great. At the 3:33 mark, Isaiah Taylor drew a foul on Hield, made the bucket, and gave Shaka Smart's team a six-point lead on the road.

Then, naturally, Hield scored the Sooners' final 12 points -- including these three -- to finish with 27 of Oklahoma's 63 points.

In other words: Keep watch, for you know not when the master of the crossover-stepback-game-winning-3 cometh. He could come suddenly and find you in momentary doubt over his status as the runaway player of the year. Lesson learned.

Denzel Valentine, Michigan State Spartans

If Hield's case becomes less open-and-shut in the coming weeks, it may not be because Hield slips but because another player rises up to meet him. Valentine seems to be the best candidate. The November front-runner notched two triple-doubles -- including a 29-12-12 line against Kansas -- before a knee injury sidelined him for four games and MSU lost three straight, including two (Iowa and Nebraska) at home in mid-January.

It isn't easy to reach peak performance coming off an injury, but Valentine's struggles were only ever struggles relative to his soaring early heights. (To wit: He had 24 points, 6 3-pointers, 6 assists and 6 rebounds against Nebraska. That was a "struggle.") He's shooting 50 percent from 2 and 43.8 from 3. He's averaging 19 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 6.9 assists. Valentine isn't averaging a triple-double, but he is averaging a triple-double flirtation. Which is crazy.

On Tuesday, Valentine was 100 percent -- not 85, not 95, but 100 percent -- back in Kansas mode. He finished with 27 points, 10 assists, 8 rebounds and just 2 turnovers against a Purdue defense that ceaselessly chased him around the floor. The Spartans lost in overtime.

Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa Hawkeyes

Recently, Uthoff's blocks-per-game average slipped below three. Which is kind of sad! Saying Uthoff was the only college player ever to average two made 3s and three blocks per game was a handy way to describe how important the senior is to the national-title-contending Iowa Hawkeyes, and how remarkably versatile he's been. It was also kind of fun to say. Oh well. Instead, we'll have to settle for this: In addition to his 18.4 points, 6.4 rebounds per game, a 120.6 offensive rating, a 30.4 percent shot rate, a 45.2 mark from 3, and a crazy low turnover rate of 7.2 percent ... Uthoff is averaging 2 3s and 2.9 blocks per game. Slacker.

Josh Hart, Villanova Wildcats

First of all: How has Villanova's basketball team never been ranked No. 1 before this week? Kerry Kittles' socks were never given one measly, deferential week atop the Associated Press poll? Our fifth-grade AAU team wore knee-high socks for a whole summer in 1995! We understood the meaning of respect. What a travesty.

With that bone properly picked, we can think of no better time to introduce Hart to the Wooden Watch's top five.

Hart has been hovering in the honorable mentions for weeks. He's never among the first few names mentioned in any player of the year discussion. In the Big East, Providence's Kris Dunn understandably maintains most of the mindshare. Even in the context of Villanova, Ryan Arcidiacono, reigning Big East Player of the Year, is the first dude discussed. Which is understandable. No elite team of 2015-16 is as much of a starless ensemble as Jay Wright's. It vastly exceeds the sum of its parts and takes that compliment in stride.

Yet Hart is the best and most important of those parts. He is Villanova's leading scorer (15.4 points per game), its second-leading rebounder (7.4) and its co-leader in steals (1.3). He takes 25.6 percent of Nova's shots -- the next closest Wildcat, Kris Jenkins, doesn't break 24 percent -- and makes 63 percent of his 2-point field goal attempts. His rebounding covers for Jenkins, an ostensible 4-man who leads the team in 3s and very much prefers not to play around the rim. Hart's interior accuracy makes Villanova's offense reliable even when the Wildcats aren't making 3s. His strengths mask other's weaknesses.

Is Hart going to win the award? No. Is he going to finish the season in our top five? Probably not. Is he a hyper-efficient, crucially valuable player for the nation's No. 1 team? Yes. And we really don't talk about him enough.

Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia Cavaliers

Real talk? The last time Virginia lost a basketball game was Jan. 17. In seven wins since, the Cavs' opponents have averaged .91 points per possession. Recently, UVA staged a 63-47 controlled demolition at Louisville's KFC Yum! Center. A week later the Cavs held Pittsburgh to 50 points in 52 trips at the Pete.

The point is: Virginia is cruising. The best season of Brogdon's career is chief among the reasons why. The senior guard is averaging 17.7 points per game for a team that has recorded the second-fewest possessions -- 61.7 per game -- in Division I basketball. He's taking 30 percent of Virginia's available shots, shooting 49 percent from 2, 40 percent from 3 and 87 percent from the free throw line, and turning it over on just 10.9 percent of his touches.

There are bunch of reasons for Virginia's improved offense this season: London Perrantes has followed a season-long sophomore shooting slump by becoming the most accurate 3-point shooter (53.4 percent) in college basketball. Anthony Gill is still ... well, he's Anthony Gill. The Cavaliers have tightened the screws on the defensive end of late, but they remain a (very) above-average offensive team. Brogdon has always been a great defender. This season he's getting more buckets more efficiently than ever before.

Honorable mentions

Ben Simmons, LSU Tigers
Brice Johnson, North Carolina Tar Heels
Kris Dunn, Providence Friars
Georges Niang, Iowa State Cyclones
Yogi Ferrell, Indiana Hoosiers

On the radar

Perry Ellis, Kansas Jayhawks
Gary Payton II, Oregon State Beavers
Melo Trimble, Maryland Terrapins
Jameel Warney, Stony Brook Seawolves
Kahlil Felder, Oakland Golden Grizzlies